Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic, Triangle Shirtwaist and the Inevitable Failure of Reform


John I. Taylor, owner of the Boston Red Sox, was just putting the finishing touches on a "lyrical little bandbox" to be named Fenway Park. The grand opening of the diamond for one of the eight charter members of Ban Johnson's still-new American League was supposed to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, news story for mid April 1912.

At the same time, a luxury ship known as the RMS Titanic was in her fitting out berth undergoing her own final touches. The keel had been laid three years earlier by laborers in Belfast, Ireland, many of them in the same economic class (third) as the immigrants who would occupy steerage below the water line.

James Cameron's classic has been panned for its historical inaccuracies, including the hit job on Mr. Murdoch's character (He was portrayed as a bribe-taking opportunist as the ship was sinking and the lifeboats separated from the davits) but we can be fairly sure he did his research in recreating the hedonistic behemoth as only CGI and trick photography can deliver.

As is all too well known, the RMS Titanic was supposed to be last word in not only luxury but also safety. The hubris of the ship builders, the White Star Line and its ultimate owner, JP Morgan, was such that only half the passengers and crew could be accommodated if the ship sank. The Titanic had enough space and davits to carry 64 wooden lifeboats, more than enough to save the 2200+ souls on board. However, the Powers That Be decided only 20 lifeboats (including four collapsible lifeboats) would be sufficient. The Titanic was unsinkable, after all. The lifeboats were mere window dressing. In fact, maritime law at that time stated that a ship at over 10,000 tons had to carry just 16 lifeboats. Ergo, Titanic actually had four over the bare legal minimum.


The ship's builder, J. Bruce Ismay, who would suffer social ostracization for his role both before and after the Titanic's foundering, decided to build an additional screen on Promenade deck A, thus making Titanic the largest ship afloat, larger than her sister ship, the Olympic. Even before her ill-fated maiden voyage, Titanic had injured nearly 250 workers, killing six. But such collateral damage was to be expected with a massive undertaking over a three year-long span of time.

Titanic had the capacity and resources to comfortably accommodate well over 3000 passengers and a full crew of nearly 900 but a coal strike just prior to her maiden voyage assured that only a little over half the berthing areas would be occupied. As the graphic shows, an estimated 78% of the crew perished after Titanic's starboard side hit an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland, flooding five of her compartments.

The investigation that followed in Titanic's tragic wake found that J. Bruce Ismay, the ship's principal builder, exhorted Captain Edward Smith, then winding down his career, to fire Titanic's other engines and to flex her muscles so she could give some good copy to the worldwide press. Excessive speed was listed as the primary cause for the collision. But the real reason was hubris.

And it was hubris and callousness that accounted for the deaths of 1514 people of all social classes. It was overweening pride that led the builders and owners to think that Titanic could not be sunk (despite being made out of iron) and the lifeboats mere useless appendages, it was hubris that led Ismay to think they could blindly barge at over 20 knots through a part of the North Atlantic notoriously littered with pack ice at that time of year.

And another look at the graphic above shows that callousness resulted in a higher survival rate across the board of first class passengers. In spite of the Titanic's standing policy of "women and children first", one third of first class male passengers scrambled aboard the precious few lifeboats. By contrast, only a third of the 3rd class children were also saved. Males in second class suffered the most horrendous casualty rate: A full 92% of them perished, presumably because they insisted on honoring the ship's "women and children first" policy.

Realizing as the ship's five compartments began to flood and word spread around that Titanic would surely sink in two hours, the first thought was to lock down in steerage the third class passengers and casual crew who worked for as little as £3 10s a month so they wouldn't take up valuable lifeboat space. To cover the landed gentry with more glory, it was later discovered that several of the lifeboats were deployed with as few as a dozen survivors even though each one was built to accommodate 65. Even under those horrendous circumstances, elbow space for the wealthy was worth condemning people to die.

I'm sure, even as the 1% ("the better half", as Billy Zane's character Cal Hockley put it) were given precedence over the 2nd and 3rd class passengers and the rest were plunged into 28 degree water that killed them within 2-3 minutes, that not a single person was thinking of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that had occurred nearby, killing nearly 150 underpaid garment laborers barely over a year earlier. Just as the Titanic became the worst disaster in maritime history, so had Triangle Shirtwaist became the worst industrial accident in American history.

So many men, women and even children perished that day because all but one exit was locked by management to prevent presumed employee theft. Many of the Irish, the nationality that built Titanic, and other nationalities in steerage were locked belowdecks so they wouldn't "steal" their only means of salvation. The lifeboats that had been regarded superfluous just two hours before were now seen as the property and birthright of the landed gentry.

As is inevitable, many shook their heads and wondered how these disasters could've happened and reforms were swiftly put in place. Just as Triangle Shirtwaist brought about workplace reforms, the Titanic's sinking gave birth to SOLAS, which is still in use today, and maritime laws had been strengthened to better ensure the safety and survival of passengers and crew.

Today, Titanic owner JP Morgan's corporate heirs in the Wall Street bank that still bears his name is front and center of several other atrocities against working class people that have been made more notorious thanks to the spiritual heirs of the 2nd and 3rd class passengers who perished and live on in Occupy Wall Street.

JP Morgan, as with so many of their competitors/colleagues, is notorious for stealing homes that do not belong to them, in refusing to modify mortgages, in charging usurious finance rates and bludgeoning their working class account holders with excessive fees.

The reforms that had been swiftly erected in the wake of the Titanic and Triangle Shirtwaist were certainly very good things (although far too late in coming, thanks to self-interested obstructionism by the 1% that just as surely called the shots a century ago as they do now).

But reforms ultimately fail if they are not maintained and refreshed. Even child labor laws that were first enacted in Massachusetts in the 1830's are under attack. Women's rights are under attack as the landed gentry and right wing policy makers spend the entire 21st century trying to hurtle us back to the 19th. Pensions had long since been taken away from workers and risibly replaced with 401(k) plans that placed the burden of retirement funds on them. Workplace safety standards are under attack, the EPA and OSHA are mere shadows of their former selves and the 1% want us back in the pre-Titanic/Triangle Shirtwaist days when workers had no protections and, in worst-case scenarios, immediately deemed expendable.

Honest and well-meaning regulations, oversight and reforms are all good and well. But they are ultimately doomed to failure unless we reform the self-dealing, self-interested mindset of the sociopathic 1% that hold those who keep them in the catbird seat (or lifeboats both literal and figurative) in complete contempt. And how does one go about permanently reforming the mindset of the sociopath?

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